The Religious Unity Regulations have provided the clearest indication yet of the official direction religion in the Maldives is taking: towards Deobandi Islam, the religion of the Taliban.
Among 36 institutions of Islamic learning approved by the regulations is the ultra-orthodox Jamia Darul Uloom in Deoband, India and at least six affiliated madrassas.
Established in 1867 to bring together Muslims who were hostile to British rule, the Deoband madrassa, created the so-called ‘Deobandi Tradition’ committed to a literal and austere interpretation of Islam. For the last 200 years, the Deobandi Tradition has argued that the reason Islamic societies have fallen behind the West on all spheres of endeavour is because they have been seduced by the amoral West, and have deviated from the original teachings of Prophet Mohammed.
It is the fundamentalist Deobad Da-ul-Uloom brand of Islam that inspired the Taliban movement. Many of the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan and in Pakistan are graduates of the Deobandi-influenced seminaries in Pakistan. Mullah Omar, for example, attended the Deobandi Darul Uloom Haqqania madrassa in Peshawar.
The Kabul Centre for Strategic Studies has reported that so many of the Taliban leaders were educated at the school that its head cleric, Maulana Sami ul-Haq is regarded the father of the Taliban. The Deobandi Tradition is highly critical of Islam as practised in modern societies, feeling that the established religious order had made too many compromises with its foreign environment.
The mission of the Deoband is to cleanse Islam of all Western influences, and to propagate their teachings with missionary zeal. Increasingly, the Deobandi movement has been funded by the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, leading to the former being co-opted by the latter.
Without a clear indication – such as ‘Darul Uloom’ appearing in the name of the institution – it cannot be said with certainty how many of the total of 10 listed Pakistani institutions in the regulations are categorically Deobandi.
Available facts suggest, however, that more than just the two Darul Ulooms listed in the Regulations are Deobandi. It is the Deobandi that has the largest number of religious seminaries in Pakistan – of 20,000 registered seminaries in Pakistan, 12,000 are run by Deobandi scholars; and 6,000 by the Barlevi, with whom the Deobandi have many disputes.
Among the 10 Pakistani institutions approved by the regulations is also Jamia Salafia, a seminary whose alumni include several leaders in Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organisation behind the Mumbai terror attacks in which a Maldivian is alleged to have participated. It is also the leading supplier of Salafi neo-conservatism in the Maldives.
Even when the approved list of institutions in the regulations’ list goes beyond South Asian borders, it gravitates towards the Deobandi movement. The list includes, for example, the Dhaarul Uloom Zakariya in South Africa. The only institute in Britain the regulations approve of is the Islamic Da’wa Academy, a place which produces the Muslim equivalent of a missionary. Why is there such an acute need to proselytise in a country where the population already believes in Islam except to propagate a particular view?
The Deoband HQ has recently sought to distance itself from violent extremism. For the powers that be in the War on Terror, what matters is the graduation from extremism to violence. But, for societies such as the Maldives, and for the people who have to live under its precincts, what matters more is the oppression that extremism imposes on daily life. This is the reality that a Maldivian people living under the Religious Unity Regulations will have to face.
The application of the Deobandi school of thought on Maldivian women is a frightening prospect that is not too far in the distant future. The Taliban’s stance on women is a clear indication of the scale of the potential problem. An example of the Deobandi’s take on women is the 24 April 2010 Fatwa by the seminary in Deoband that declared it ‘haraam’ and illegal according to Sharia for a family to accept a women’s earnings.
‘It is unlawful for Muslim women to do job in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil.’
Embarrassed by the angry reaction in the Indian media and among women’s groups, the Deoband madrassa denied it banned women from the work place and only insisted that working women be ‘properly covered’. As analysts have pointed out, however, what the Fatwa suggests is that women can only work in such places where they can fully veil themselves and where they cannot ‘frankly’ talk to men, whatever that means. The Fatwa effectively banned Muslim women from the workplace in India.
The Religious Unity Regulations stipulate that no one should propagate their particular ideology of Islam as the ‘right Islam’. This stipulation looks good in writing, and is perhaps what has allowed the government to spin the document as ‘a crack-down on extremism’.
It is true the regulations prohibit the promotion of a particular ideology of Islam as the ‘true Islam’. But by regulating what truth about Islam would be considered as legitimate in the first place, a pre-selected knowledge of the ‘right Islam’ – what looks like Deobandi Islam – is being imposed on the people that pre-empts the regulations themselves. It is clear from the staggering changes that have occurred in Maldivian faith in the last decade that the Deobandi movement has been a resounding success in the country. Now it has the chance to flourish further, with no conflicting opinions to be allowed in.
Clamping down on other forms of Islam is, in fact, a defining characteristic of the Deobandi Tradition. Although from a global perspective the Deobandis are only one of many religious expressions of Islam, from the Deobandi point of view, theirs is the only true Islam.
The Deobandi regard all other forms of Islam as heretical, leading to continued tension and long-term violence between the Deobandi and other Muslims. In Pakistan, where the Deobandi is known to have played a crucial role in establishing an Islamic state, the Deobandi Taliban have carried out many acts of violence against followers of the Berlevi tradition, which many Pakistan’s Muslims follow.
The Religious Unity Regulations have already created tensions among those who have claimed the mantle of ‘religious scholar’ in the Maldives. The Islamic Foundation of the Maldives is arguing against the Regulations on the basis that the requirement of a first degree as a prerequisite for the Preachers License is unconstitutional. It is also fighting for the religious right to describe Jews as ‘evil people and liars’.
The Adhaalath Party, meanwhile, has objected to the regulations because the President and his advisors apparently watered down the purity of their contributions to the draft Regulations by contaminating it with “provisions from English law…not suited to a 100 percent Muslim country”, echoing the founding principles of the Deobandi Tradition.
‘Compared to the first draft’, President’s advisor on the Regulations, Ibrahim ‘Ibra’ Ismail, said, “the regulations do not impinge on freedom of expression”.
What matters is not whether, comparatively speaking, the first draft is a veritable Magna Carta. What matters is the final draft that has been gazetted. And it severely restricts the freedom of the Maldivian people in the name of the ‘right Islam’ – Deobandi Islam. To spin the document as something that “will allow liberal-minded thinkers to convince people of the middle ground” is deliberately misleading if not an outright lie. This document does the exact opposite.
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